When I was invited last week to a screening of What Just Happened (limited release, Oct. 17), my first reaction was, “What the who?” Though the movie was directed by Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) and stars Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn, John Turturro and Catherine Keener, I hadn’t seen any publicity or even heard of it. Usually this is a sign a film is a turkey and the studio is trying to dump it. Well, Happened is not a dud but its fate might still resemble one of the movies within this movie if the studio doesn’t get behind it.
De Niro plays Ben, a harried producer trying to wrap post-production on one film (Fiercely, starring Penn) while preparing for start of production on another, starring Bruce Willis (playing an ass version of himself). Fiercely‘s director, Jeremy (Michael Wincott), is an infantile, drug-addled poseur who thinks being edgy means ending his film with a dog being shot multiple times. The studio head (Keener) wants a different ending or else she’ll can the Cannes premiere and dump the movie.
Meanwhile, on Ben’s other film, Willis has gained a lot of weight and a Grizzly Adams beard he refuses to shave (this is supposedly based on Alec Baldwin, who refused to shave for producer Art Linson’s 1997 movie The Edge). The studio threatens to shut down production if Ben can’t persuade Willis to look like a movie star. Ben’s also juggling couples therapy with his second ex-wife (Wright Penn) to learn how to be “so happy apart, [they’ll] never want to get back together,” while making time to drive all his kids to school.
The movie is based on Linson’s book of the same name, subtitled Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line. Linson (Into the Wild, Fight Club) also wrote the script here so it’s no surprise De Niro is a sympathetic alter ego. Ben drives a Porsche SUV and lives in a nice home with fancy toys but we see the price he pays for all that and not once did I envy his life. If you’ve ever wondered exactly what a producer does, this movie gives a glimpse. He’s a mediator, hand holder, babysitter, bullshit talker all in one.
The movie has some very funny moments poking fun at the ridiculous behavior of some Hollywood denizens. Willis is obviously having fun playing an over-the-top diva version of himself but I’ve seen people behave this way so maybe it’s not so satirical. And the shooting-the-dog ending is ludicrous but you suspect some real-life director has tried getting away with it before while claiming indie cred.
The all-star cast turns in solid work as expected but besides Ben, there isn’t anyone to really root for. We laugh but don’t empathize. The question is: Will people outside Hollywood be amused or disgusted by all the imbecilic, narcissistic behavior? My guess—if you find Entourage funny, you might enjoy this film. If you think Ari Gold is a pig, go see something else that doesn’t include bloody dog corpses.